Charles Woodson got the call the day before the Super Bowl telling him he had been named to the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s class of 2021. Woodson was selected in his first year of eligibility, an honor he most certainly had earned during his 18-year NFL career. The former Michigan star spent 11 seasons with the Raiders, but he played his best football during his seven seasons in Green Bay.
The Packers signed Woodson as a free agent in 2006, one of the few big ticket free agents the late Ted Thompson added during his tenure as Packers general manager. When he joined the Packers, Woodson was 29 years old and already considered past his prime. When he hit the free agent market, Green Bay was not one of his preferred destinations, but he had no other offers. Reluctantly, the Freemont, Ohio, native signed with Green Bay.
“I came here and played before [with the Oakland Raiders], but all the talk you hear from people that played in Green Bay, it’s like, ‘You don’t want to play there,’ ” Woodson said two years after he signed with the Pack. “Coming from Oakland, this is day and night. And every account I can remember of someone talking about Green Bay, this was not my type of place. It was everything — organization, nightlife, the whole thing. You know, just being in Green Bay. The talk is always this is no place for a black man and that’s just how it was.”
It didn’t stay that way for long. After a shaky start and some friction with head coach Mike McCarthy, Woodson found himself and lifted his game to another level. In his first season in Green Bay, 2006, Woodson intercepted a new career high eight passes and returned one of them for a touchdown. It was the first of nine interception returns for touchdowns that Woodson had while in Green Bay including three in 2009.
Woodson intercepted 38 passes in his seven seasons in Green Bay, 11 more picks than he had in 11 seasons in Oakland. Twice he led the league in interceptions. In 2009, he picked off nine passes to lead the league and in 2011 he added seven more. He was named to the Pro Bowl four times and earned All Pro honors twice.
In the modern NFL, dominant defenses are rare. The key for contemporary defenses is to make big plays, create turnovers and get key stops. Few defensive players made more splash plays than Woodson did. In addition to his 38 interceptions as a Packer and his 10 total touchdowns, Woodson forced 15 fumbles and recovered six more. He also sacked opposing quarterbacks 11.5 times and had 29 tackles for loss.
Woodson thrived in Dom Capers defense and Capers appreciated what Woodson’s play allowed him to accomplish. “Charles was a good enough athlete to play corner, he could go out and cover with the best receivers,” Capers indicated. “When we moved him inside, he was closer to the action – very instinctive, got his hands on a lot of balls, made big plays. To me, you evaluate the great players, they impact the game because two or three times a game they’re going to make plays that have a big-time effect on a game.”
Woodson also proved himself to be unselfish. Even though he was still a quality cornerback in his final season in Green Bay, he agreed to move to safety and he continued to play well there before injuries shortened his season.
In addition, Woodson developed into a leader in the Green Bay locker room. As a veteran still playing at a high level, he had the respect of his teammates. During the Packers 2010 Super Bowl run, Woodson often spoke inspirational words to his teammates.
The most famous incident took place at the 2010 NFC Championship Game. The Packers were set to face the Bears with the winner going to Super Bowl XLV. President Obama was a Bears fan and indicated he would attend the Super Bowl in two weeks only if his Bears beat the Packers and played in the game. Woodson told his teammates, “The President don’t want to come watch us in the Super Bowl? Guess what? We’ll go see him!” The team responded with a chant of “White House!” as the locker room exploded with enthusiasm.
Woodson was injured midway through Super Bowl XLV and the team clearly missed him in the second half. The Packers held on for the win and Woodson had his championship.
Joe Whitt was the Packers cornerback coach during part of Woodson’s time in Green Bay. He knew he had a special player in Woodson who could do more than just cover receivers. “He was so unselfish he made more plays by being so impactful against the run,” Whitt told the Packers Yearbook in 2011. “When he was on the line of scrimmage teams had to roll protection towards him and it ended up putting a running back blocking Clay [Matthews]. What other cornerback can do that? There’s only one. Calling Charles a cornerback is limiting because he’s a different breed. He’s the smartest football player I’ve ever been around.”
Woodson’s teammates also appreciated what he brought to the team on and off the field. “Charles dominated in a way I never saw anybody dominate before,” quarterback Aaron Rodgers recalled in 2019. “The 2009 season, one of the greatest seasons I’ve ever seen. What he did on defense, impacting the game, I’ve never seen a player impact the game that way.”
Woodson remained with the Packers through the end of the 2012 season before ending his career with three more seasons in Oakland. But it was with Green Bay that Woodson was at his best, his most effective, his most dominant.
Woodson was touched by his selection to Canton. “I feel like this means that I’m going to live forever,” he told reporters after getting the good news. “This is immortality. This is a great, great accomplishment that I share with each and every player and coach and friend and family member that I have that’s supported me over the years. This is the ultimate compliment that one player could ever achieve after their playing days are over.”
Charles Woodson is now a Heisman Trophy winner, an all-time great Packer and a Hall of Famer. All those honors are richly deserved.
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